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Home > Features > Balance > Life Cycle


Life Cycle

Roadside reflections of a not-so-easy rider


Stephen M. Follett

Vermont seemed like the right place, and 1973 the right time, to put my legs where my environmentalist mouth was and try to wean myself from petroleum. I was a recent émigré of California, where it was considered normal to drive 30,000 miles a year. To each his own. But with a pregnant wife and a job that paid a third less than what I had been earning, corners had to be cut. A used Raleigh Record bicycle with some miles on it seemed like a good investment. Having clocked 12 miles a day for 26 years without burning a drop of gasoline, I can say that it was.

Okay, "without burning a drop" is an exaggeration. During the harshest winter weather, I'm forced to take our aging Chevy Caprice along the beloved ride from Proctor to Rutland and back again along Route 3, though I don't like to admit it. A hardcore cyclist might sneer at a pansy who opts to abandon the game when the opponents are merely bitter cold and six inches of salty slush. But if the roads - and especially my personal space, the six-foot breakdown lane - are clear of slush and the chances of precipitation less than 50 percent, I'll risk it.

It's a rare year indeed that I don't manage at least a few days dueling with ski-racked Cherokees and Volvos. Extreme cold will deter me, though. When suiting up and stripping down takes longer than the actual ride, I say to hell with it. Riding at that temperature, it takes a few minutes for my eyes to stop watering, and until then I'm practically blind. Combine that with the ever-present possibility of being taken out by an SUV, and winter isn't the greatest cycling season. The upside is that while everyone else is busy scraping the frost off their windshields, I'm out of the parking lot and half a mile down the road.

By early April things begin to liven up rapidly. One night will be silent, and the next, a lone peeper will sound off. He'll be joined by a few more the next night, and then more still, until the happy sounds of amphibian choruses arise from the low wet places along my route. The wood frogs, sounding like nocturnal ducks, join the chorus a week or two later. There aren't as many now as there were years ago. I don't know why; maybe it's the new houses next to the wetlands. Or the hundreds of frogs flattened by the heavier traffic. But some remain, and though they aren't calling to me personally, I hear and smile.

I especially like seeing the pair of hawks - or surely by now their progeny - that return each spring to the Dickenson farm. To see those magnificent raptors soaring out over Otter Creek lifts my spirit and gives me hope for rebirth and renewal. The spring erupts in birdsong. Who could conceivably prefer a Disc Man to this symphony? Even the crows laugh as they soar and glide, occasionally mobbing one of the hawks. It makes me want to keep doing this forever. And why wouldn't I? At 80, after a double hip replacement, my father sold his car and went on a year-long bike tour of Europe.

Once the weather has warmed, the biggest hazard is rain. While I do admit taking the car when the rain promises to be steady or cold, getting caught in a downpour can also give me a charge. I've gotten pretty good at predicting the weather half an hour hence, so I seldom get soaked. When these odd Vermont micro-monsoons catch me off-guard, I strut in to work, soaked and elated, with a change of clothes in my bag. Especially in the summer, a sudden downpour can be a welcome break from the heat, and fun to watch, too.

Since I work the second shift, the ride home is 'round midnight. This isn't the problem it might seem. A halogen rechargeable light warns cars of my presence, and often compels them to turn off their high beams, giving me back my night vision. But I often switch off my headlight on the quiet of Route 3. There's more light outdoors at night than one might think. Driving in a car at night down a dark road gives the feeling of traveling in a tunnel, limited to only what the headlights illuminate. When riding, on all but the darkest overcast nights, there is more than enough light to navigate the familiar road.

And when the moon is out, the scenery is spectacular. I can see almost everything visible during the day, softened by that magical grayish-silver cast peculiar to moonlight. I can see cows, whitetails, coyotes. The air is clear. The sky is stunning and lovely, in its eternal, seasonal dance punctuated by meteors, the aurora or, recently, sojourning comets. The Big Dipper wheels around Polaris, the faithful guide marks my northerly path home. For part of the year, Orion looks over my shoulder, the belt so clear I can pick it out in my small rearview mirror. On rare occasions, the aurora provides a stunning, surging light show.

There are sounds, too, that night drivers, sealed in their auto-worlds, miss. The freshets and rills stream towards the Big Otter Creek; the suck and gurgle of that stream, flooding with melted snow or heavy rain. Sometimes it's the wind keening in last year's dry grass, sometimes a nervous bird roused from its perch by a dream, a lonesome dog, a panicked deer fleeing through the brush.

The night is magic, but even with the traffic, the day ride is fun. I'm still not bored by it, even after this long. The wildflowers flourish on the roadside in their sweet seasonal cycle of blossoms whose names I don't know, but whose beauty and perfume have graced my daily ride. I know Purple Loosestrife is an invasive, but it's pretty down there in the swale. Even the insects - when not in your teeth - are a part of the joy. Butterflies, woolly-bears, crickets - all add texture and lovely detail to the ride.

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Despite the drawbacks - headwinds, litter, traffic - I can't imagine locking myself back in my car and shutting out the sensations of the countryside. Drivers may have the comfort of headlights and speed - and, in this hot summer, air conditioning - but you miss the night, the night so beautiful it scares me. My imagination runs wild. I freak out, my kidneys throbbing with adrenaline, at a sound in the woods that could be...ah, it's probably a spooked doe.

The sky is vast; I feel small, but not disconnected. But then I round a bend, and my dilated eyes fall on a three-acre field sparkling with fireflies. The sight is unexpected and breathtaking. I dismount to gaze for awhile, lost between insects and stars. Way to go, bugs. Nice work, stars. Then, happy to be alive in this place at this time, I pedal on towards the welcoming lights of Proctor, and home.

This essay originally appeared in the August 4, 1999 issue of Seven Days

Steve Follett lives with his wife, Carol, in Proctor, Vermont. He works as a maintenance technician for a large industrial firm in Rutland. When not pedalling his bike or troubleshooting balky machinery, he serves on the Proctor Free Library Board of Trustees. He has also been known to make ice at the Proctor outdoor rink until all hours.







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